History of the Name
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The History of Our Name
- starting with some facts about the Clan
Clan Lands & principal estates: Ogilface Castle, Armadale, SW of Edinburgh in Lothian; Easter Doddingstoun, Edinburgh; Cambrun, Fife; Carruthers in Annandale; Newgrange, North Berwick; Newmylne and Stenton in Lothian; Redcastle on the Black Isle, Cromarty; the thanage of Colpney/Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire; the thanages of Kincardine and Fettercairn, and Balbegno Castle on the River Norh Esk in Kincardineshire; Craig Castle in Angus by Montrose; the barony of Largo in Fife; Grange, Orky, Anstruther and Lambieletham all in Fife; Bonnytoun Castle (Bonnington) in Angus; Raik in Aberdeen; (minor land holdings in Lothian, Perthshire, Nairnshire and Banffshire).
The fortunes of every clan family's territories have waxed and waned over time; their extent and jurisdiction have fluctuated enormously and continually. The same applies to the clans themselves, and Clan Wood being distinguished by the heraldry and ensigns of its lawful chief conferred on behalf of the Sovereign is just another part of that enduring process.
Among the earliest surviving mentions of the name in Scottish annals are those dating back to Lord Wilhelmus (Wm.) de Bosco (bosco = wood translated into clerical Latin). On the 28th June 1211, King William the Lion appointed him Chancellor of Scotland, in which dignity he was confirmed by King Alexander II when the dominance of powerful Normans in Scotland was at its height. William lived and worked in the populous and comparatively well-heeled Lothian region (see the map below) at Ogilface by Edinburgh. He was concurrently Archdeacon of Lothian from 1214 till his death in 1231. [Back in 1203, the castle, lands and income of Ogilface were bestowed on Edinburgh's Holyrood Abbey - founded by King David I in 1128 - whose church was being rebuilt at the time.] One of the most influential noblemen of his day, William would have been the obvious choice to be their tenant-in-chief. In due course, the estate became a free barony fully within the control of his family from which our chiefs have descended.
(The chancellor had a brother, Sir Randulph, who witnessed charters connected with St Andrews Cathedral Priory.)
Kelso Abbey charters studied in 2016 show that Easter Doddingstoun (in modern Edinburgh) and half the lands of Cambrun (Cameron) by St Andrews were held successively from the 12th century by Hugh, Richard, Reginald and Thomas de Bosco. Their portion in Fife was subsequently defined as Lambieletham, which was much later named as being owned by immediate male descendants of the Admiral, evidencing centuries of continuity as superiors of those lands.
A number of other men also named de Bosco were occupied in the service of the king during and after William the Chancellor's time. By the second half of the century, it was a §1Sir Andrew de Bosco who was laird of Redcastle on the Black Isle in the Highlands near Inverness. His wife Elizabeth de Bisset possessed Kilravock (pron. Kilrawk) on the River Nairn, which would have passed to her husband on marriage. Their only daughter Mary married Hugo (Hugh) de Ros, who acquired Kilravock Castle in dowry through her in 1293, and it was the seat - rebuilt from 1460 - of the chiefs of Clan Rose till 1984 when the 25th chief handed it over to a religious charity. [She was succeed by her nephew David Rose in 2013.] On the 10th of August 1295, William de Wod, Sir Andrew's younger son, was witness to an Inquest at nearby Cawdor into the extent of the Kilravock estates. [The same document gets a mention in the piece reproduced below entitled The Thanes.] We shall return to Sir Andrew presently.
In later times there lived a significant William de Bosco, Thane of Colpney (aka Overblairton, Belhelvie that encompassed the lands where Donald Trump has installed his golf course) near Aberdeen, from whose third son, Walter, derived the name Walterson ('Walter his son') which, we are apocryphally assured, evolved into the contracted form 'Watson'.
Redcastle, Black Isle
At the foot of this page is an article, written for and about Cawdor Castle, which is pertinent to the Woods and describes what a thane was in mediaeval Scotland.
With forenames like William, Ralph, Hugo, Walter and Richard, the earliest de Boscos (also referred to in Latin chronicles as de Vosco, de Boreo, Bois, Boys and Bosch) were Norman aristocrats who were quite close to the sovereign.
For generations, significant families like the Woods ineluctably shared elements of their culture with nearby Highland peoples, some of whose territories were but a moderate horse-ride from Belhelvie, for instance. Such factors will have helped early on to spread the adoption of practices associated with Norman feudalism that seem to have suited the Highlanders' way of doing things.
That particular branch of the de Bosco/Wood family and their kinsmen, along with their complement of vassals, bondsmen and retainers requisite for such dynasties to exercise their superiority and ensure their defence with that of their liege lord the king, appears to have remained settled in the region. Then the thanages of Fettercairn and Aberluthnot (see 'The Thanes' article below), including the sheriffdom and bailliewick of Kincardine, were confirmed (i.e., renewed) by a charter of King James III to Andro Wod of Overblairton, Belhelvie, 'our loyal and familiar servitor'. (The use of the term 'familiar' - which meant in those days, 'a friend; an intimate; a confidant' - tells us that he must have spent a fair portion of his time at court, like his contemporary namesake and chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Wood of Largo and their successors.) The charter explains that the family had occupied those lands 'even for a long time bypast', and had served the household of his father, James II (1437-1460).
The Woods were still there when James Wood, Laird of Balbegno, and Alexander Wood of Nether Benholm were both appointed in 1646 by the Scottish parliament to serve on King Charles I's Committee of War for the Sheriffdom of Kincardine. Such appointments, though honours, carried with them ruinously costly liabilities like the duty to raise, arm and train a body of men from among their adherents and dependants - effectively to multiply the size of their existing forces - to fight in the king's cause. When the king lost the Civil War and his head in 1649, many such leading Royalist families throughout Charles's realm were heavily fined by Parliament and forfeited their estates. Most lands and titles were reinstated after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, but the price had been too high for a lot of families to avert steady decline and even ultimate insolvency: harrowing for them; catastrophic for their dependent peoples.
This is borne out by the experience of a 3xg-grandson of the Admiral, James Wood, fiar of Grange and Lambieletham. He levied a troop of horse for the king's service and was appointed Rutemaster to the King's Lifeguards. His regiment was disbanded following the capitulation of Sterling Castle to Oliver Cromwell in 1648. In 1661, an ungrateful Restoration parliament that was strapped for cash issued a decree requiring the repayment of costs he had paid for the levy of horses and men during his time in the late king's service. The debt so encumbered the Grange estate that it had to be sold by his son months after he inherited it from his grandfather in 1669. Curiously, that James married Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew Wood, Bishop of the Isles and Caithness, the same gentleman who adopted in their childhood the future family representer, the Rev. Alexander Wood and his siblings after their father, William of Dunbar, passed away. (See the Our Chiefs section.) Now, he and Elizabeth had a son, also James, baptised in Edinburgh in 1686. It is stressed that the following must be considered conjecture only:
It is at least possible that this James Wood, who had been made landless, financially unmarriageable and purposeless and would have been age 29 in 1715, is he who was with the forces of James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, after enlisting as a Jacobite or more likely an adventurer when the rebel army passed through Fife, and was subsequently recorded as captured after the Battle of Preston in Lancashire, tried in Chester and transported aboard the ship Elizabeth & Ann from Liverpool to Yorktown, Virginia.
After 1066 and all that...
There exists a 'family tree' that stems from one Guillaume (Wm.) de Boissay, born around 1020 AD in the tiny hamlet of Boissay just 20km [pron. §2kilo-metres] from Rouen, capital city of Normandy. His named children are subsequently recorded in England, which tells us that the family crossed the Channel following the Duke of Normandy, thereafter known as King William the Conqueror, in or soon after 1066. We learn that they and their kind took possession of formerly English-owned domains ("to the victor the spoils"), and that just a few generations in time later appears our aforementioned Wilhelmus de Bosco, a favourite of the Scottish Crown and a power within the Church.
[Another knight, Jean de Boissay, accompanied the Conqueror's brother, Duke Robert II, on the brutal First Crusade of 1096. That line can be traced forward for several centuries.]
King David I spent much of his youth at the Anglo-Norman royal court of England. He was made Prince of Strathclyde and Lothian by his older brothers before becoming king of Scotland in 1124. He invited his closest friends from the south to help him unite and rule his diverse country, granting those younger sons of major Norman and Flemish nobles large tracts of land along with the people who lived there, which they ruled absolutely with their military forces while owing their own allegiance directly to the king himself in accordance with the feudal system they were introducing or, rather, imposing. The family dynasties they founded in that era were to displace or outrank much of the country's native aristocracy. The Normans delighted in puns and nicknames, and the de Boscos eventually rendered their name into the vernacular tongue, Wod. It was a commonplace practice that subject peoples adopted the family name of the local lord to whom fealty was given or demanded. This story is typical of how a number of Scottish clans gradually melded into being.
At the close of the twelfth century, Walter de Bosco held Carruthers, a then populous corner of Annandale of which the Bruces (de Bruis) were famously the lords. In 1320, Sir Thomas de Bosco - see below - is recorded as Baron of Ogilface close by Edinburgh. (Both of these latter baronial estates and their incomes were eventually gifted to the Church in payment for prayers to be said in perpetuity "for the salvation of our immortal souls" [those of the donors' families]. More about this later, though it might be observed here that the souls of the less well-off were presumably expected to remain as undervalued in the next life as they were in this.)
The overlaying of the Norman feudal system upon the established ancient order, alluded to earlier, transformed the rules of succession and led to the emergence of potent new clan family loyalties throughout Scotland - east, west, south and north. Moreover, the corrosive concept of 'racial purity' was not dreamed up till long after that century, and intermarriage was always acceptable to the Normans. When Scotland's kingship failed at the end of the thirteenth century, causing internal conflict, the lords of those clans filled the power vacuum and resisted England's Plantagenet kings who were trying to exploit the disrupton to their own ends - the period ending in 1357 known as the 'Wars of Independence'. It was a confluence of circumstances that brought about what amounted to no less than the foundation of Scotland's distinctive clan structure that is still so relevant to clanfolk of today.
The site of Ogilface Castle (Old British [Welsh] with a 'soft mutation': uchelmaes = high plain)
The adjacent property, coincidentally, is Woodend Farm!
Several men named de Bosco/Bois were prominent during the recurrent Wars of Independence. For instance, four months after the Scots were defeated by King Edward I - 'Longshanks' - of England at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296, both Thomas de Bosco of Ogilface and Sir Humfrey de Bosco were among the 1,800 Scottish nobles compelled to give homage to King Edward at Berwick-on-Tweed, though Sir Andrew de Bosco of Redcastle stayed fast in the north. Thirteen months later, a Scottish army led by noblemen Andrew Moray and William Wallace (Hollywood's 'Braveheart', but without the blue face make-up) routed an English army at Stirling Bridge. Those thousands of lives were lost in vain, however, for Edward quickly regained the upper hand in 1298 at the Battle of Falkirk. It was recorded by 1301 that Sir Andrew and Thomas had taken up arms against Edward and in response to this, in 1303, Edward 'the Hammer of the Scots' issued letters of forfeiture against Thomas, removing from him his extensive manor of Ogilface and installing William Dacre, resident guardian of the English border county of Cumberland, as governor of the castle. [Two centuries later in 1513, the Dacres would play a role in defeating the Scots at Flodden.]
The de Boscos' faithfulness to the Scottish cause was to exact further tolls on the incipient clan's principal families. In 1304, Sir Andrew was garrison commander of the strategically important Urquhart Castle on the north-western shore of legendary Loch Ness, which his forces had recaptured from the English nearly three years earlier. During its subsequent siege by mercenaries in the pay of England, he was killed within its walls when they were eventually breached by the attackers. For attempting 'to steal the king's jewels', Thomas was taken prisoner and incarcerated in Edinburgh Castle (he was actually trying to prevent Scotland's Crown Jewels from being plundered and expatriated by Edward who had already carried away to Westminster Abbey the sacred Stone of Scone [pron. skoon or skewn] on which kings of Scotland traditionally were seated while being crowned). On the 12th of April 1305, King Edward issued an order to have him moved from Edinburgh to the Tower of London. He is not heard of afterwards and is presumed to have been executed. From this we can deduce that simply to have cruelly executed him for treason in Scotland would have sparked popular insurrection, for the people must have lauded him as a true hero of their shamed and oppressed nation.
There ensued a period of internecine blood-letting when Robert de Bruis with his supporters crushed his Scottish enemies - the MacDougalls and rival Comyns in particular - before embarking on seven years of geurrilla warfare against the English occupiers, culminating in the Scots' victory at Banockburn in June 1314. The lands of Ogilface were then returned to Thomas 'the Jewels Thief's' son, Thomas, who was knighted by King Robert I - The Bruce, quite likely as much for his father's ultimate sacrifice in defending the Honours of Scotland as for the valour and loyalty he himself had shown during those terrible years of bloodshed. Given its recent history, however, the castle is seen as a fitting candidate to have been one of those slighted (demolished) by King Robert to prevent their repossession by any future incursion.
Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness
So were those de Boscos really the progenitors of our line of chiefs? Many, if not most Scottish clans and families have difficulty in identifying their founders with absolute certainty, but royal gratitude and patronage tended to accompany the Woods and their following even from those distant centuries when the modern nation was being pulled into shape, and several of them, right down to the Andrew Wood of Largo in James VI's time, were appointed to high offices such as Chancellor and Comptroller of Scotland. In 2014, research commissioned by the Clan Wood Society and carried out by one of Scotland's most respected historians and genealogists, Gordon A. MacGregor, brought to light primary source documentary evidence showing that the Woods for whom the king erected the Fife barony of Largo were the senior line of the family that had firmly established itself in Lothian generations before them. This is further corroborated by the 15th century replication of Sir Thomas of Ogilface's armorial bearings on the seal of Alexander de Wod, the Admiral's father. Despite Sir Thomas's pious daughter, Beatrix, having given away their ancestral barony to the Church in 1386, the family was possessed of heritable estates in and around Edinburgh - including Arthur's Seat - and St Andrews, as well as properties in Leith, Aberdeen, Dundee and feasibly in foreign ports where they conducted their long-established business. The senior line progressed through Alexander de Wod, bailie of Edinburgh in 1403, his son William, a merchant and bailie of Edinburgh, and his son Alexander, bailie and burgess of Edinburgh, who was father of Admiral Sir Andrew Wod of Largo (numbered 6th of the Name from Thomas 'the Jewels Thief'). By the mores of their times, the 'quality' of their marital unions during the intervening century had continued to reflect their inherent high social standing and their obvious wealth which was further sustained by their diplomatic skills and maritime trading interests. Andrew Wod of Largo and his first cousin Walter Wod of Bonnytoun and Raik acquired their baronies within a few years of each other. Both were armigers to the king.
[It is worthy of note that a number of members of this Society reside in, or have their origins in the Wood homelands referred to here.]
* * * *
This is as convenient a place as any to lay to rest the ghost of an oft-repeated error about the relationship of the Woods of Bonnytoun to the Woods of Largo that has haunted its way into some people's received understanding of those families to this day, and is the subject of queries sent to the Clan Wood Society and other specialist authorities every year. It appears to have emanated from the quill of the well-known antiquarian Patrick Abercrombie, physician of Edinburgh, whose dates 1656-c1716 closely coincide with those of the Rev. Alexander Wood (see the Our Chiefs section). Abercrombie predicated that the Admiral 'was a cadet of the ancient family of Bonnington, in Angus', to quote from the usually insightful 1863 private family publication 'Memorials of the Woods of Largo' written by Mrs Frances Mary Montagu, sister of the then chief George Wood resident at Potters Park, and is often used as a reference book by students of family history. It could have been an innocent mistake on Abercrombie's part, or it may reveal some interesting, perhaps subliminal bias in his thinking processes that typified polarised attitudes prevalent in his day.
Abercrombie was a Roman Catholic and a Jacobite, and he vehemently opposed any political union of Scotland with England. He had been appointed physician to King James the VII (II of England) who was summarily removed from the throne due to his 'papist' allegience to Rome, and was replaced by his Protestant daughter from his first marriage, Mary Stuart and her Dutch husband William of Orange who ruled as joint monarchs William III and Mary II. The Woods of Largo, in fact the senior family, took the opposite stance to Abercrombie on all these immensely significant matters of state. At least one of them, a Reformer, played a part in the deposition of Mary, Queen of Scots (for which he and the Regent were subsequently assassinated), and another actually helped to formulate the parliamentary legislation that created Great Britain.
On the other hand, there is no apparent evidence that tells us whether or not the now vanished Woods of Bonnytoun abandoned their old faith.
* * * *
Historical Revisionism about Scotland's people has been rife down the centuries, so here is a modest attempt to put a few records straight.
As we have seen, the erroneous notion that clans are Highland groups and families are Lowland units is very much a Victorian (19th century) one. In fact, the terms are interchangeable, and many a Lowland laird has held from the Lyon Court the title ‘Chief of the Name and Arms’, together with a Standard and Pinsel (heraldic flags) granted to those, like the Woods, with an organised clan following. (Vide the authoritative treatise written by Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Rothesay Herald of Arms in Ordinary at the Court of the Lord Lyon, reproduced at - http://www.scotarmigers.net/pdfs/info-leaflet-11.pdf .) Yes, the word 'clan' is of Gaelic derivation, but why would that limit its use to the northern territories? To paraphrase a line penned by a well-known Lowlander: A clan's a clan for a' that.
Yet what amounts almost to a fixation with the adjective 'Highland' persists today in some quarters, resulting in the common misconception that Highland clans, along with their dances, competitive games and so forth, were and are somehow 'more Scottish' than the vast majority of clan families established seven or more centuries ago outwith that region. Clans Kennedy, Hay, Gordon, Wallace and Leslie number among the best-known examples. Even a cursory glance at the territorial map 'Scotland of Old' referred to in the Our Chiefs pages clearly demonstrates how illusory are certain beliefs that grew out of the traumas of Culloden and the Clearances, further influenced by the popular romantic inventions about the Highlands and Borders in Sir Walter Scott's brilliant fictional novels. After all, geography alone dictated that it was not the Highland clans that most often bore the brunt of English aggression during the Wars of Independence.
Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Admiral Sir Andrew Wood and Robert Burns were all Lowlanders.
The village of Ceres in the Lowland county of Fife has held Scottish games ever since local archers came home celebrating from their victory at Bannockburn in June 1314. Inevitably, that word 'Highland' has crept into the annual event's title in fairly modern times. The 19th century Fife poet John W. Wood wrote about it:
"For this is June's great gala day
When men rin wud, and youngsters play;
The day that marks the grand return
Of Ceres men frae Bannockburn."
Another myth - that only Highlanders wore tartan - was perhaps propagated by those mostly Protestant Lowlanders wishing to distance themselves from the defeated, predominently Roman Catholic Jacobite clans of the north (though some of those clans were divided in their loyalties), during the dangerous years of bloody retribution following the 1746 Battle of Culloden that ended what was essentially a religious uprising. However, the Scottish Tartans Authority has plenty of evidence to show that it was practical and quite usual for Lowlanders, too, to wear apparel for warmth made in district tartans that later became family-associated, and indeed that the central and border counties of the south had always been a major centre for weaving tweed and tartan cloth of the finest quality. They still are.
This is not to say that the powerful Lowland families organised themselves in the same way as those of the Highlands and of the Borders. But the differences and the bounderies between them were never as clear-cut as some would have it. Human social structures simply do not work as conveniently as that. Lots of Scottish families had their origins in the north, south and middle of the country, not to mention continental Europe. It is probable that most Scots were never part of a clan system. One traditional core of Wood influence was evidentially seaward of the 'fuzzy' eastern margins of the geographical Highlands. Society and boundaries change, often piecemeal, and with them people's perceptions and aspirations. History still exerts an enormous impact on the present, but that does not mean that people of the 21st century want their lives actually to be governed by the conventions of the past. Modern clan societies record, commemorate and celebrate their clanfolks' shared heritage partly because the great appeal of those activities can forge global fellowships and personal friendships. In the process we must never forget to learn from our history - but let our understanding of that history not be skewed or tainted by that enemy of Reason, misplaced zealotry.
[As a footnote to all this, despite the abundance of artefacts to be seen in the UK and Ireland that were strongly influenced in their design and manufacture by a Celtic culture, modern geneticists have learnt from new research that there is insufficient DNA evidence in the living population to suggest that Celts themselves ever settled the islands. The Picts were not ethnic Celts, after all. These latest studies appear to bear out what was written some years ago in the Our Chiefs section of this website about the close relationships between the peoples of Scotland and those of northern England. Scotland's unique blend of cultures and traditions is really what makes us different.]
* * * * *
- and now, how people came by their surnames
Before family surnames that pass unchanged from father to son had become commonplace by the late14th century, most non-landed people possessed only the name that was chosen for them by their parents - which, as Christendom expanded, came to be at their baptism. This meant that large numbers of individuals had the same name as others in their community, so ways of better distinguishing each from the others evolved. Many were identified with features that described where they lived (e.g., John [of or at the] ford, hill, brook, townsend, heath, ridgeway, wood, field, cross, moor and so on; or with the name of a village, town or district that they came from - in Norman and later Huguenot French, de Wherever - the 'de' or 'of' being later dropped by people no longer connected); or their association with the customary handed-down role performed by a family in the popular local religious mystery or mummers' street-theatre plays (like John [the] king, lord, duke, earl, baron, St. George, St. John ("sinjun"), knight, shepherd, wiseman, bishop, priest, deacon, monk, abbot); or with their occupation (John [the] miller, archer, mason, carpenter, shepherd again, thatcher, wheelwright, potter etc.). But people exclusively so surnamed are today nowhere near as numerous as the Woods. In fact, during the early Middle Ages much of the population lived either in or near woodland - the only source of fuel for the majority, so there was nothing especially distinctive or 'nameworthy' about it. Moreover, using their own woodcraft skills was essential to the workaday life of all peasants and farmers. It is often said that the surname Wood derives from Anglo-Saxon 'wudu' meaning a wood or wooded forest. No doubt that is true of the word, but not necessarily of the surname. It seems there are too many of us for that to have been the sole origin.
In the year 2000, Wood was the 61st of Scotland's top surnames, and the 25th in the UK as a whole.
Individuals were also known by nicknames reflecting their physical or behavioural characteristics (John [the] short, wise, cruickshank, sweet, toogood, armstrong, peacock - king and pope sometimes signifying 'haughty'). The most frequent surname throughout the United Kingdom is Smith. That derives from 'smitan' the ancient word for 'to smite' (a blacksmith is an iron beater). It is understandable that members of the bellicose warrior tribes of those centuries would want to be famous for being smiters, hence the popularity today of the name Smith. Similarly then, Wood as a nickname probably came from the Anglo-Saxon Wode or Wod, the Germanic storm god of great antiquity known for his wildness (links with Woden/Odin/Wotan, from whom we get Wednesday). Wod, therefore, generally came to mean 'wild' or 'crazy', signifying one who becomes frenzied or savage in the midst of battle - surely a compliment in an unstable, warlike society, and one to prize as a patronymic. It was how our chiefly family, the Woods of Largo, were still spelling their name well into the 17th. century. Writers as late as Shakespeare used 'wod' in the sense of being wild. Arguably, in a fiercely Christian world, that association with an unmentionable pagan god would not have gone down very well, so it can be imagined how comfortably a collective forgetfulness of the connection might have set in. By the 15th century, there were surnames spelt both Wod and Wood (they may have sounded the same) of families resident in the main towns, and supposedly it was when the former had finally become 'modernised' to Wood by the late 17th century that the large numbers of us became evident.
It is believed that numerous Scots anglicised their Gaelic name Coil/Coyle to Wod/Wood.
Furthermore, the Oak tree is closely identified with the storm god whose thunderbolts often struck it, but seemed only to imbue the damaged tree with extra vitality for growth. The Oak was therefore held to be sacred - a conduit of virility and power. It features prominently on the escutcheons (shields) of all the Woods' coats of arms, and a Sprig of Oak is the proper plant badge of Clan Wood - a fitting metaphor, if ever there was one. [Practically every clan has a traditional plant badge. The Crest Badge, on the other hand, specifically signifies the wearer's loyalty to the chief, the Crest of whose amorial bearings it depicts - in our case, the ship under sail, as shown at the top of this page.]
Personal names that became surnames.
What we now think of as 'given' first names mostly had descriptive meanings of their own (e.g., Peter = Rock; Robert = Bright with glory; Phillip = Lover of horses; Alexander = Defender of men - which itself contains Anders/Andros/Andrew = Manly), to which was often added "son of" (or more precisely, the possessive "[hi]s son" - 'his' being the Old English genitive case simply meaning 'belonging to' or 'pertaining to' regardless of gender or number; the ancient mode still being written in Anglian Scots during the 16th century: e.g., 'the queenis justice') when surnames became necessary in the Middle Ages. [Mac- as a prefix in Scottish Gaelic is a near equivalent.] So, compare the following few examples: Peter, Peters, Peterson; Adam, Adams, Adamson; John, Johns, Johnson; Stephen, Stevens, Stevenson; Will, Wills, Wilson; Robert, Roberts, Robertson; Wood, Woods, Woodson, and scores of others that readily come to mind. Surname etymologists say that early regional practices determined whether -son or just -s expressed 'son of''. [So-called 'possessive apostrophes' - in place of the 'hi' missing from 'his' - did not enter English language texts till the late 1600s.] It can be safely asserted that surnames ending with -son always stem from 'given' personal names as illustrated here, so the very existence and frequency of Woods and Woodson confirms that Wod/Wood was once, perhaps as often as not, a descriptive nickname.
"The Thane of Cawdor lives, a prosperous Gentleman," wrote Shakespeare with confident grace, but we have no more notion than he did as to how the thanes began to thrive. The first recorded Thane of Cawdor, Donald, comes into the candle-light of history as one of the witnesses to a humdrum legal document in 1295 [the same document that was also witnessed by William de Wod]. The dynastic dignity of a thane was the equivalent, in Scotland, of a feudal baron holding lands from the Crown. A thane was frequently the chief of a clan, always the administrator of his district, usually an influential individual with power of life and death, and was only answerable to the King or to his deputy or to God. The word 'thane' was borrowed from the Saxons who had adapted it from the Norse title thegn - meaning a trusted servant of the King - just as 'earl' was taken from the Norse title of jarl; these were the oldest distinctions of nobility in the Middle Ages. King Edward I of England (d.1307) had defined penalties for injuring the various grades of society: the Cro (fine) for killing the King's son or an earl was 150 cows, and for an earl's son or a thane 100; an ingenious tax - index-linked, quality-controlled, mobile and edible. In Scotland, a total of sixty-three thanedoms once existed, from Haddington south of Edinburgh and Fortingall west of Perth, across the vale of Strathmore to Fettercairn [long held by the Woods of Balbegno and of the royal castle of Kincardine]; up to Aberdeen and over to Dingwall and down to Rothiemurchus. Wherever there was rich red soil fertile enough to feed warriors, there were sure to be thanes waiting, patiently, for trouble.
Article reproduced with acknowledgements to the Cawdor Estate
Those who accept the most popular notion that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci are actually espousing what would have been considered at the time an unpardonable heresy. To have a place or feature named after your forename, you had to be either a saint or a senior royal. The city of Washington was named for the first US president; neighbouring Georgetown for King George II - after whose queen the Carolinas were named. The Cook Islands, Sidney, Telford, Canberra, the Hudson River, Buckingham Palace, Columbia are all named for prominent commoners – non-royals. Louisiana, Victoria, San Francisco, Willemstad, Jamestown, St Petersburg, Queen Charlotte Sound all respect the names of kings, queens or saints. Maps of territories all over the world named by Europeans are covered with examples of this standard observance, occasional exceptions not creeping in till the 20th century with the likes of Alice Springs. So, which commoner of the early 1500s might have given their surname to the New World?
Well, when the navigator John Cabot sought financial backing for his planned expedition to the fabulous Indies by a westerly route north of the one taken by Columbus, he went to the notoriously abstemious first Tudor king of England, Henry VII, who granted him a licence, or letters patent, to claim for the English Crown any lands not already known to Christian men, but adding the caveat that the crew’s voyage must be ‘at their own proper costs and charges’.
Scholarly research is ongoing, but it is sometimes conjectured that Italian bankers in London made some contribution to Cabot’s first voyage of 1497. It is certainly known, however, that a consortium of wealthy Bristol merchant-mariners was the prime financer of the expedition, headed by the High-Sheriff of Bristol, Richard Americk (possessed of an anglicised Cornish or Welsh surname given various spellings), members of which may have been among Cabot’s adventurous crew of 18 or 20 men aboard their pocket-size carrack Matthew. They became the first recorded Europeans to discover the coast of mainland America, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (Columbus having found only the islands of the Caribbean five years earlier, then he and Vespucci the South American coast between 1499 and 1502).
Scandinavian, Scottish and English fishermen had been working the abundant cod banks in the north over the continental shelf east of that mainland for many decades prior to Cabot’s voyages. If any of them ever espied or even landed on the coast unaware of its extent, it would not have been their concern or in their commercial interests to make the fact known.
So, whose surname really did become attached to that ‘new’ continent? Hmm?
It was probably a mistake.
To speculate: what if the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who produced a famously influential map of the known globe in 1507 which he very soon revised, got hold of a fisherman’s simple chart with the single possessive word ‘America’ noted somewhere on the seaboard, indicating the location of a mundane but essential fish-salting station belonging to a Mr. Americ of Bristol?